CACHE panel considers reopening venues safely; Northwest Arkansas joins nationwide initiative

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 876 views 

A lot of unknowns remain on how to reopen event venues safely, but some have started to reopen in Arkansas or are looking to do so soon, panelists said.

Northwest Arkansas recently joined an initiative on reopening venues safely, and Creative Arkansas Community Hub & Exchange (CACHE) hosted Tuesday (May 4) a panel of regional leaders and experts in a Zoom webinar on the topic of reopening convening.

Kate Becker, creative economy and recovery director in the Office of King County, Wash., Executive Dow Constantine, said Northwest Arkansas recently joined the initiative now comprising 18 cities and regions in the United States. In April 2020, Becker and colleagues at nonprofit Music Policy Forum launched the initiative Reopen Every Venue Safely (REVS) with 11 U.S. cities. Similar initiatives were started in Canada and the United Kingdom.

“Everything shut down sort of simultaneously,” Becker said. “Some of them have been able to reopen in our region, but nationally we pulled together REVS, the Reopen Every Venue Safely initiative under the Music Policy Forum umbrella. I serve on the board of the Music Policy Forum to bring together cities … [and] regions to work together to learn what was happening in different parts of the country, helped share what we had learned with others, learn from them what could benefit us and really pull together.”

Becker noted those who’ve historically been competitors are coming to the same Zoom meetings to work together and help everyone. She recommended to start hosting outdoor events and establish a relationship with area health departments.

Dr. Sharon Reece, family physician at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Northwest in Fayetteville, said the pandemic has taught her to be agile in order to rapidly adapt to sudden change.

Reece, who’s also the physician lead for the COVID-19 vaccine drive in the area, said about 30% of Arkansans 16 and older are vaccinated. It’s not close to reaching herd immunity, but she noted the improvement in vaccinations since January.

With regard to guidelines for safely reopening events and venues, Reece explained various ways to do so safely. She said a strategy to reduce risk would be needed while following the progress of vaccination efforts, and this information can be used as guidance on how to “return to normal so to speak as we go forward in the next few months.”

“The caveat to all of this is there’s always a huge unknown,” Reece added. “The big unknown in places like India, for example, are these variants of concern, so that’s something that we’re actively monitoring. The main push right now is to continue to increase awareness and acceptance of vaccination.”

Reece pointed to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a thorough and flexible resource. The CDC provides real-time updates and scientifically accurate information but also defers to other guidelines when they should take precedence because of regional variations, she said. The CDC also has user-friendly guidelines for business owners, restaurants and industry-specific concerns, she added.

Eddie Vega, a concert promoter and radio station owner in Northwest Arkansas, said smaller venues across the state have started to reopen at limited capacity after directives were changed to guidelines. But many have closed, and he suggested people support their venues.

Vega, who also owns the Springdale Civic Center and a Little Rock venue, said he’s adapting his large venues to be contactless, including the restrooms and with the use of money. With restrictions in place, operating was not feasible. Most of the shows must be sold out to make money at his venue with a capacity of 4,000 people. The venue’s last show was in February 2020, and it’s been closed since then.

“We’re getting ready to reopen,” he said. “I’m seeing a lot of movement on our industry, which has been one of the most damaged with the pandemic. In our case, I’ve had zero income for over a year. And the expenses don’t stop. It’s been quite a challenge.”

He said surrounding states, Oklahoma and Missouri, were not shut down, and his clients were going to concerts there. He also said the Hispanic community was one of the most impacted by COVID with many as essential workers employed at area poultry plants. But he noted the community has one of the highest vaccination rates. He’s targeting a June reopening for his venues.

“We’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, finally,” he said. “I think we are going in the right direction to reopening and doing it safely.”